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School poetry, Donne but not forgotten


NEWS that schools can drop poetry from the GCSE English Literature syllabus has been greeted with dismay in some quarters.

The move is aimed at slimming the number of lessons because so much teaching time has been lost during the coronavirus lockdown.

However, Melvyn Bragg has branded it a national scandal, saying: ‘We’re already deeply sunk in the mire of becoming a dumbed-down country.’

Well, I can see where he’s coming from, especially as he hero-worships William Wordsworth. But I must admit that if I’d been given the choice as a pupil almost 60 years ago, I probably would have ditched poetry before you could say ‘iambic pentameter’.

Back then, we seemed to spend a lot of time in English lessons dissecting, debating, analysing and annotating poems – like some lifeless laboratory specimens – rather than simply enjoying and appreciating them.

I’ve rarely delved into poetry since. Yet to my surprise, when I saw the story of the GCSE curriculum, I realised that, despite the turgid teaching, the work of the great poets we studied so long ago at school has stayed with me. 

It shows how poetry powerfully distils, encapsulates and embeds an idea or an image, often with exquisite grace and beauty. 

Admittedly, these days I can remember only the odd verse, or certain outstanding lines and phrases from the poems we studied. But, free now of having to write an essay about them, I can relish even those fragments for their innate worth. They include . . .

No man is an island. 

Never send to ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

 John Donne (For Whom the Bell Tolls) 

One impulse from a vernal wood 

May teach you more of Man

Of moral evil and of good

Than all the sages can.

The child is father of the man.

Earth has not anything to show more fair.

– William Wordsworth (The Tables Turned; My Heart Leaps Up; Upon Westminster Bridge) 

Water, water every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)


They fought the dogs, and killed the cats, 

 And bit the babies in the cradles.

–     Robert Browning (The Pied Piper of Hamelin)

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.

 Percy Bysshe Shelley (Ozymandius)

Good fences make good neighbours.

 Robert Frost (Mending Wall)

Half a league, half a league

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson (The Charge of the Light Brigade)

 The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

 Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.

– Thomas Gray (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley.

 Robert Burns (To a Mouse)

Look, stranger, on this island now.

 W H Auden (Look, Stranger!)

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,

Butting through the Channel in the mad March days.

 John Masefield (Cargoes)

Yonder a maid and her wight

Come whispering by:

War’s annals will cloud into night

Ere their story die.

 – Thomas Hardy (In Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’)

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds. 

A terrible beauty is born. 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

 W B Yeats (An Irish Airman Foresees His Death; Easter 1916; Under Ben Bulben) 

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.

– T S Eliot (The Hollow Men)

Fools! For I also had my hour.

– G K Chesterton (The Donkey)

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?

 Wilfred Owen (Anthem for Doomed Youth)

And the unforgettable . . .

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

– William McGonagall (The Tay Bridge Disaster)

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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